The Dive | Foreign workers: For better or for worse?

By January 4, 2020Current, Perspectives, The Dive

TL;DR – We need them but we don’t quite want them.   

The Dive is a weekend feature where we bring you interesting insights and different perspectives on trends or issues that matter.

This week’s topic is on public attitudes towards foreign workers. An ILO survey unveiled that while 70% of Singaporeans agreed that there is a labour shortage, only one in four of us saw the need for foreign workers.

We also spoke with Lal, a Singaporean working in an Indian MNC based in Singapore. He shares his real life experience working with foreigners and also on hiring locals and foreigners here.

The Employment Pass conundrum 

Migration has often been called the human face of globalisation and rapid globalisation in the recent decades has only accelerated the rate of migration throughout the world. Singapore is no exception, housing over 1.4 million foreign workers on our tiny island. Of the 1.4 million foreign workers, there are roughly 255,000 domestic helpers, 284,000 construction workers on work permits and 189,000 Employment Pass (EP) holders. 

The Economic Development Board (EDB) and Enterprise Singapore (ESG) announced that under a new pilot scheme, qualifying technology companies will have Employment Pass applications of their core team members facilitated, to help them get the talent needed to set up new teams in Singapore. This would greatly help Singapore’s innovation and startup ecosystem, in turn creating further opportunities for Singaporeans and enabling Singaporeans to learn from these tech talents. 

However, some paint a less rosy picture of foreign workers. 

The Singapore Democratic Party was directed by the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) Office to correct two Facebook posts and an article in which it insinuated that there was an increasing trend in hiring foreign professionals while employment of local professionals was plunging. 

The Government clarified further on their website, Factually, that the number of local Professionals, Managers, Executives and Technicians (PMETs) employed has increased from 1.17 million in 2015 to 1.30 million in 2019, with the local PMET as a proportion of the total local workforce increasing from 54% in 2015 to 58% in 2019. 


At the heart of the debate – the Employment Pass.

A work visa doled out to foreign professionals to live and work in Singapore, it is usually valid up to two years and can be renewed. This makes it much easier for individuals to apply for permanent residence (PR) in Singapore. The Ministry of Manpower also specifies some criteria to be fulfilled before an individual can qualify for an Employment Pass.

Therein lies the conundrum surrounding Employment Passes. And while statistics might show one side of the story, there is a need to also examine perceptions on the ground towards foreign workers.  

Public attitudes towards foreign workers

A recent survey of four Asian countries by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and United Nations Women asked 4,099 participants (including over 1,000 Singaporeans) about their public attitudes and perceptions towards foreign workers. Participants across Japan, Malaysia, Thailand and Singapore were surveyed and the report threw up some interesting observations. 

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Singaporeans agree there is a labour shortage but not

necessarily that we need foreign workers

With Singapore’s tight labour market, growing economy and ageing population, it’s not difficult to understand why our economy relies a lot on foreign labour. Unsurpisingly, 70% of Singaporeans agree that there is a labour shortage. 

When asked what effect migrant workers would have on the national economy, Singaporeans were the most optimistic of the four countries, 59% of the participants in Singapore answered that migrant workers would have an overall positive net effect. 

ILO Report (via)

However, only one in four Singaporeans agreed that there is a need for foreign workers and an even smaller 14% feel that Singapore needs high-skilled foreign workers. 

This contradiction in results surface an interesting situation where Singaporeans are aware that there is a labour shortage requiring more manpower and that are positive economic gains with foreign workers, but still are not fully convinced about the need for foreign workers. 

We took to the streets to hear fellow Singaporeans’ thoughts

Alex, 30s, is in the publishing and commodity pricing industry and since it’s quite a niche market, he feels that there are very few local talents available for such roles.”  His take is that the need for foreign workers is industry-dependent and that “certain skillsets are still lacking in local talents.”

John, 30s, a practitioner in the private healthcare industry also echoes Alex’s beliefs.  

“We can’t do without them at present because of the nurse shortage.

Can Singaporeans do their jobs? Definitely, but not many Singaporeans want to be in healthcare as nurses because of the perception of the job.

 That it is demanding, tough, and filled with a lot of stress.” 

Mr Siow, 30s, works in the banking and finance industry and has many foreign workers as colleagues who handle the IT system as well as documentation. He was a bit more contemplative when asked whether Singapore really needs more foreign workers. “I’m 70% certain that we need foreign workers because of their skills and knowledge. However, I have also seen some lousy foreign workers.” 

Mr Tan, a PMET in his late 30s in the banking and finance, feels otherwise. He feels that Singapore can do without foreign workers and that Singaporeans can currently replace the roles that many foreign workers are in. 

Crime, culture and work ethic 

While Singaporeans quite readily agreed on the net positive impact foreign workers have on our economy, they appear to sing a different tune on other societal aspects. 

The survey found that 52% of Singaporeans polled felt that foreign workers have caused the crime rate in the country to increase while 32% believe that foreign workers have poor work ethic and cannot be trusted. 

Statistics of arrest rates prove these perceptions moot.

The arrest rates per 100,000 population were 435 for Singapore residents and 286 per 100,000 for foreigners. Very significantly, the arrest rate for work permit holders alone was even lower, at 227 per 100,000. Clearly, despite evidence to show otherwise, negative attitudes towards foreign workers likely influence and translate into discriminatory perceptions towards them.

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In addition, 53% of Singaporeans polled perceive foreign workers as a threat to Singapore’s heritage and culture. Could this stem from fears that foreign workers themselves are resistant to integrating into Singapore society?

An Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) survey of about 4,000 Singapore citizens and permanent residents reported that 6 in 10 participants felt that foreigners could do more on their part to integrate into Singapore and its way of life.  

Several Singaporeans we spoke to also shared that their foreign counterparts could do more to integrate themselves. Mr Siow said, 

“They participate regularly in most of the company events but I realized they prefer to eat lunch with their own people from their country.” 

Eunice, who was previously from an advertising firm with regional capabilities, agreed that some foreign workers tend to be clique-ish. 

“They were from France and Denmark. Some nationalities tend to keep to themselves more – like adult cliques and support each other a lot. For instance, because my boss is French, he tended to bring in people from their own network because it is people they trust. 

The flipside of the coin: Do foreign workers want to integrate? 

 There is consensus that some foreign workers do make the effort to integrate, especially within the context of the organisation, but a larger segment of foreign workers seem to still keep to themselves and their own countrymen.

We explore further by speaking to the foreigners working here in Singapore.

Ms Chloe, a Malaysian in the finance industry, does not feel much of a difference between herself and her Singapore colleagues. She hangs out with locals and they have been receptive and accepting of her. 

However, a pair of male colleagues who hailed from Indian had a different story to tell.

Both in the IT industry, one is in his 40s who has been a Singapore PR for 16 years while the other is in his 30s. They mentioned that the HR department in their company did not make any effort to help them integrate with Singaporeans and they themselves do not feel the need to as they have their own network of friends. Their company is made up of 50% foreigners and is likely the reason for them not feeling like they need to integrate further. They did mention that Singaporeans are generally a nice bunch but can be nit-picky about jobs. 

Foreign workers in Singapore (via)

A husband-and-wife pair of foreign PMET workers we spoke to felt the same.

They are both in their early 30s and have been in singapore for two to three years. They are both Indian nationals and work in the IT industry. They see work as purely work and hence do not feel the need to go all out of their way to make friends with locals as they have their own friends after work. 

So while Singaporeans place the onus on foreign workers to integrate themselves into society, it’s quite clear that some segments of foreign workers perceive their stay in Singapore as short tints or already have friends and perhaps do not see the need to go out of their way in assimilating.

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The ILO survey cited interactions with migrant workers as one of the key factors that correlate with public support for migrant workers. It has found that “the frequency and quality of interaction with migrant workers were a strong predictor of support for migrant workers.”

In order that the society remains cohesive and for Singapore, for the nation to continue to balance the need for economic growth, incoming migrant workers and Singaporeans’ sense of security and comfort in their own country, it is perhaps worth investing in laws, programmes and initiatives for more interaction of communities with migrant workers.

Left to our devices, it does not look like integration will happen organically. As the ILO survey has found, “interventions that foster trust building, understanding, and familiarity with each other are important.”

Integration is a two-way street and the process requires both Singaporeans and their foreign counterparts to step out of their comfort zones, take initiative and sustain engagement. While like tends to attract like, being open minded about each other’s cultural differences would help to widen horizons. 

For better or worse?

This issue is a relatively complex one. For the most part, Singaporeans are aware that foreign workers are necessary to plug the labour shortage and help the economy. However, it is a delicate balance of making sure Singaporeans do not feel like foreigners are here to take their jobs or dilute the Singapore identity. Foreigners themselves can do a lot more to integrate into society so as no to make Singaporeans feel excluded in their own country. 

One of our interviewees, an Indian national in her late 30s who had been in Singapore for 14 years, shared her learning through the years.

“The biggest lesson I learnt is not to judge each other.”

“The culture in Indian as a developing country is very different from Singapore. I used to judge Singaporeans for being wasteful, spoilt, but now I know that it is just a different upbringing and different ways of life. Both locals and foreign workers need to put in the effort to understand that they are different and it is okay.”

“Learn to respect each other.” 

With a little bit of give and a little bit of take, perhaps the next ILO survey will have more encouraging results.   


Does Singapore need more foreign workers?

(Featured image via)



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Author Zahra

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